Do You Suffer From “Manager Mom Syndrome?”

Do you enjoy being the family nag? I’m sure you don’t. But over the course of forty years working with families, I’ve observed a huge number of mothers (both those who work outside the home and those who don’t) who spend most of their time every day managing the logistics of their families—shopping for and cooking meals, cleaning up, helping with homework, scheduling appointments, reminding their children and husbands to go to those appointments… It seems never-ending. Why do these moms take on all this work? Because they feel like if they don’t do it, no one will—and the day-to-day functioning of the family will fall apart.

Does this sound like you? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Many American families are living with a condition I call the Manager Mom Syndrome, which is just what I described above: a household runs almost exclusively by Mom. Why is that a bad thing? Well, Mom is tired. Mom is overwhelmed. Mom has her own life to live, and maybe she would like to do something with her free time other than attending to the details of her family members’ lives.

Before we go any further,  I must acknowledge that not every American family consists of the mom/dad/kids framework I use as the basis of this book. Many families are run by single parents. Many others are run by two women or by two men. Many families are formed through adoption, fertility assistance, or some other plan other than biological conception between two married, heterosexual adults. The diversity of the families in our country is something to be recognized and celebrated,  and  I hope that every type of parent finds something useful to take away from the Manager Mom Epidemic. The content of this book is driven by normative data of large populations, which overwhelmingly shows that families headed by heterosexual parents fall into a pattern in which the woman handles the majority of the daily responsibilities. Much has been written in the past several years about the “mental load” or “emotional labor” that is borne by mothers, and this book is a contribution to that conversation. If you are a father who finds himself shouldering the majority of the burden, or you are in a same-sex relationship, I hope the concepts and takeaways of this book help you create a happier, more equal family, and that the language used throughout for convenience doesn’t stand in the  way of the benefits this book strives to provide.

So, what is the Manager of Mom Syndrome? It is an unwitting conspiracy between Mom, Dad, and the kids, who all believe that, in general, if the work of running the household is going to get done now and get done right, Mom has to do it. The good news is that this belief isn’t true, and the happiest families share the work and the fun equally without too much of the burden falling onto any single person.

So if you’re tired of being the one who always schedules the dentist appointments, buys presents for birthday parties, and handles the emotional labor of remembering, planning, scheduling, remind-  ing (and reminding again), it’s time to fire Manager Mom. Let’s get started!

What Does the Manager Mom Syndrome Feel Like?

Ella: “I’m so tired! I have to do everything by myself. I was up till eleven last night doing laundry, and that was after getting the kids to bed. My husband likes his alone time at night after working all day.”

Hailey: It’s 9:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Hailey has been up since 5:30 a.m. entertaining and feeding her two kids, two-month-old Carter, and fourteen-month-old Owen. Husband Grant is still asleep, snoring peacefully. Hailey resolves that next week she is going to find more time for herself, one way or another. Will her husband want breakfast when he gets up? Why can’t he get his own?

Aubrey: At least sixty times per day, Aubrey wonders whether or not she is a good mother. She remembers hearing a speaker once who mentioned a concept known as “total motherhood.” This was the idea that all the responsibilities for child-rearing rested solely on the shoulders of the mother of the house. Aubrey feels that’s the way things are in her home. She has one child, five-year-old Taylor, but her husband spends time with the child only on the weekends, and that’s mainly engaging in fun activities—not the childcare basics such as bathing, dressing, feeding, and so on.

Abigail: “I’d love to go out at night, but I can’t imagine just being gone from home for three hours straight. And I can tell you this, I’d feel really funny just announcing that I’m leaving the house for a long time for the sole purpose of hanging out with a friend.”

Kylie: Kylie is hunkered down at a motel just eight miles from her home. She told her family she was taking a week off and going “on strike.” She left her husband, eight-year-old daughter, and twelve-year-old son at home to fend for themselves. Kylie explained while trying to suppress her resentment, that she was tired of being what she called the “family gopher.” Cook, babysitter, laundromat manager, a picker-upper, toilet scrubber, scheduler, chauffeur—you name it. Secretly, Kylie hopes the family will feel an appropriate sense of guilt, come to appreciate all the services Mom has offered, and change their ways when she returns from her “vacation.”

Janelle: “Friday is my laundry day. I get it started after I get home from work. Do you think the kids—and Dad—can take the time from their busy schedules to get their stuff down to the laundry room? Guess again—no, don’t think so. I nag and nag, which I don’t enjoy, then half the time I have to get their dirty clothes myself.”

No One Is Happy

Although you might think that Mom might be the only one upset about Manager Mom Syndrome, everyone in the family has issues with these Mom-directs-all scenarios. Kids don’t like being told what to do all the time, and they become more uncooperative, forgetful, and resistant to the more nagging they hear. (Psychologists sometimes call this “passive-aggressive” behavior.) Dad gets tired of listening to arguments between his spouse or partner and the children, and he tends to pull back and—in some ways—“disappear.” How long does it take to read the sports page in the bathroom?

Of course, the biggest victim of the Manager Mom Syndrome is Mom. In this kind of family set-up, Mom justifiably feels taken advantage of and overloaded. Mothers—particularly those with small children—feel anxious (“Can we get all the chores done today?”), resentful (“Why doesn’t anyone around here help out?”), guilty (“Am I a good mom?”), and depressed (“Is this my life?”). Mom’s mental health takes a beating.

As one mother put it, “With all these people and all this activity, I feel as though I’ve lost myself.” How? Here’s one example. In 1980, Gerald R. Patterson wrote a paper called Mothers: TheUnacknowledged Victims. That book was written, surprisingly, before a lot of mothers started working outside the home part-time and then, more and more, full-time. Patterson pointed out, after extensive research, that mothers of normal preschoolers are regularly exposed to “high densities of aversive events.”1 In other words, raising these cute little creatures— pretty much alone—is a tough and often unpleasant job.

Arlie Hochschild’s well-known work, The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home, originally published in 1989, highlighted another version of the stress on moms.2 Hochschild pointed out that even when men  and  women  both  worked outside the home, women tended to do a “second shift” on evenings and weekends that included taking care of most of the primary childcare, secondary childcare, and housework responsibilities.

In her 2018 book, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, Gemma Hartley adds another twist to this picture by describing how the current domestic scenario actually adds insult to injury for mothers. First of all, direct, primary childcare is usually a very difficult kind of mental or “emotional labor.”3 Though it has its rewards, it is also a kind of unremitting and lonely drudgery. Second, primary childcare with very young kids does not receive anywhere near the kind of social support and recognition that working outside the home provides.

What Is the Manager Mom Syndrome?

When all is said and done, the Manager Mom Syndrome is a kind of maternal addiction, and Dad, partner, and kids are the passive enablers of the obsession. Oddly enough—and you can look at the problem through different lenses—Mom is often addicted to an occupation that has a number of positive descriptors: President, Servant, Commander, Crisis Manager, and First Responder, for example, come to mind. Those roles are usually considered positive ones.

But in filling these roles, Manager Mom overdoses on kindness, helpfulness, organizational skills, and commitment to getting the work done. In the process of expressing these normally constructive traits, Mom loses her healthy free time—and herself.

What about the enablers—the other members of the family? Well, if Mom wants to take responsibility for everything, fine! Often other family members will simply let Mom take over, thus unwittingly and inadvertently sacrificing their own independence and competence.

When the Manager Mom Syndrome goes untreated and the behavior of its active (moms) and passive (dads and kids) conspirators continues unchecked, the Syndrome sometimes morphs into its absolute worst expression: MartyrMom. This condition is especially difficult to deal with because among its symptoms is the fact that as time passes—more and more—the participants in the drama start to enjoy their own misery.

Fortunately, Manager Mom Syndrome is a curable condition. For that remedy to materialize, though, both moms and dads need to hear some things they don’t really want to hear. Then both moms and dads need to do some things that they might not really want to do—at least for a while. And—surprise, surprise—the kids have to be included in some meaningful way. The process can sometimes be extremely difficult, but the effort is usually worth it. Living in a household where Mom’s angry organizational dominance and constant supervision seem to be a requirement for smooth operation is not good for anyone’s mental health or for the happiness of the family as a whole.